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Melodie Holmes, Director, Client Experience Communications, Group Benefits for Manulife Financial in Waterloo, Ont.

Manulife Financial

Small businesses might not always be able to match the salaries and other perks of corporations, but one way they can remain competitive employers is by helping staff balance their work-life demands, business advisors say.

"There's a different sense of community in a small business, less institutional," says

Melodie Holmes, Director, Client Experience Communications, Group Benefits for Manulife Financial in Waterloo, Ont. Small business owners may have a tighter bond with their staff, appreciate the challenges of their life outside work, and be in a position to respond to those needs, she says. "Smaller businesses are inherently more flexible."

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Forty-eight per cent of Canadian job seekers say that having a good work-life balance is one of the most attractive qualities in a potential employer, research by Randstad Canada, a recruitment and staffing firm, has found.

Working in benefits, Ms. Holmes knows that medical, dental and insurance coverage can be a huge factor in staff recruitment and retention. Yet other policies and programs that foster employee well-being and ease stress can be equally important.

Ms. Holmes points to offerings that help staff adopt healthier lifestyles, like nutritional counselling or smoking cessation and weight loss programs. Often, these can be less-known parts of a benefits plan, but are highly desired by employees.

"We're seeing employers make significant investments in wellness programs, to give employees tools they can use," says Ms. Holmes.

Some initiatives that support balance and wellness can cost little or nothing, she says.

For instance, money management can be a major source of household stress. Businesses might be able to alleviate some of that stress by tapping into their accountant or bank to arrange staff workshops on topics like budgeting or saving for a child's education.

Flextime is another valuable benefit. Allowing staff to attend appointments or come in a bit later on occasion might not matter much to the small business owner. But it can make a huge difference to an employee who is able to see her daughter off to school, Ms. Holmes says. In her observation, the newer generation of employees, especially, is expecting more flexibility like that from their workplace.

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Flexibility can be a matter of fairness, when one considers that the line between work and home life isn't that clear anymore. A survey released earlier this year by Randstad found that 51 per cent of workers handle work-related matters in private time, 53 per cent receive call and e-mails outside office hours, and 29 per cent expect to be available 24/7. Conversely, 46 per cent handle private matters during working hours.

As Stacy Parker of Randstad Canada notes, people don't stop living when they go to work, and often don't stop working when they get home. That juggling act only adds to stress, she says.

Small business owners may feel stressed about running the company, but they also should acknowledge, says Ms. Holmes, that their staff are dealing with their own stresses in their work and home lives.

Why should employers care about their employees' personal schedule, diet or financial planning? The idea that you leave your problems at home when you come to work is antiquated, Ms. Holmes says. It's in employers' interest to do what they can to help staff with work-life issues. "When employees come to work stressed, it can have a detrimental impact on productivity."

Look out for your employees' well-being instead, says Ms. Holmes, and staff can be fiercely loyal in return. "In the long run, you as the employer reap the gains."

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